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History of Education in the U.S. Colonial - Present

History of Education in the U.S. Colonial - Present (2.1)

"I am convinced that we must train not only the head, but the heart and hand as well."
-Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Colonial Schools (1620-1750)

America's formal education system was heavily influenced by European intellectuals. The schools paralleled the British two-track system. If poor children went to school at all it was the elementary level only. These students learned to read, write, basic computation, and religious instruction. The rich child, or the upper class child, had the opportunity to attend Latin grammar schools, where they were given a college-preparatory education.

Teachers had some status in the community because they, along with the clergy, had more education than most of the population. However, their position was secondary to that of the clergy. Additionally, teachers had to be of high moral character, which came under intense scrutiny by the rest of the community. They also had many other duties besides teaching, such as cleaning the school, substituting for the minister, and ringing the church bell.

Education in the colonies reflected the colonists' beliefs, values, and concerns. Most colonists believed education should help save souls and emphasized the scriptures.

New England (Northern Colonies) colonies (Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and Connecticut) established town schools with a strong Puritan tradition.

  • church states and schools were interrelated
  • reading and writing were taught so that children could read scriptures
  • the puritan view believed that people were sinful

Different groups in the middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) established parochial schools that preserved their various languages and beliefs. These groups were Irish, Scots, Swedes, Danes, Dutch and German. Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Mennonites tended to establish their own schools, which promoted their culture, religion and traditions. The Quakers who settled in the Philadelphia area in the 1680's believed in educating the populace. They were also tolerant of others' beliefs and ways of life. They had a strong influence on the development of education and established the first public school.

In the Southern Colonies (Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and North and South Caralina), where society was more structured and stratified according to socioeconomic classes, the wealthy plantation owners developed their own system to prepare their sons for further education. Children from poorer households received a minimal education and slaves from Africa only learned what was necessary to attend their masters.

Here, religious instruction had an important role, but so too did the more rigorous education of secondary schools, where the sons of the wealthy learned the necessary subject matter to prepare them for college on the European continent. In 1636 Harvard College, the first post-secondary school on the North American continent, was established in the Boston, Massachusetts area and in 1693 the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia was founded.

Informal education in early America meant learning from the family, working through apprenticeships, and learning from the increasing number of published books and newspapers.

Dame Schools were one of the more common types of schools found in the colonies. They were often established by women, and more often than not run from the home of the person in charge. Students were charged a modest fee to attend. Education was basic, concentrating on reading, writing, and calculation. Attendance was often erratic and dependent on the season and work at home that needed to be done. For most females the dame school provided their only education and homemaking skills such as sewing were also included in the instructional process.

Among the tribes that had developed written languages, the Cherokee tribe who originally lived in the Southern portion of the United States had developed a system of formal education to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. They, however, were methodically pushed out of their native territory in the early 1800's and forced to move to the Oklahoma territory, which limited their ability to influence educational practice in early America.

Cool History Site


Puritan-A member of a group of English Protestants who in the 16th and 17th centuries advocated strict religious discipline and simplifications of the ceremonies of the creeds of the Church of England.

Parochial Schools-schools founded on religious beliefs.

Dame Schools-colonial schools, usually held in the homes of widows or housewives, for teaching children basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills.

Activity 1

Interview veteran teachers or administrator and ask them to comment on the changes they have observed and experienced during their careers. Write a paragraph about your interview.

Activity 2

Briefly explain what the status of the teacher was like in the American colonies ( 1620-1750). Compare it to the status of teachers today.

Check out this powerpoint!


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